Thursday, July 01, 2010

W.10- Maintaining Reputations, and Earning New Ones?

The Wimbledon Ladies' semifinalists were all seeking to either pad or reconstruct their reputations.

One was seeking to prove why she's the odds-on favorite to win yet another slam title, while another was trying to prove that her days of being her own worst enemy were a thing of the past. Another was attempting to add her name to a long list of her countrymen and woman who've thrived in the same Centre Court environment, while still a fourth was wishing that the two best weeks of her career to date were more a glimpse of what she'd always been capable of all along rather than a singular aberration that will make this SW19 result a perplexing anomaly.

In the day's opening semifinal, Vera Zvonareva sought to begin the process of erasing once and for all the image of her destroying rackets, ripping tape and fighting back tears while losing a tennis match. The important first step toward totally re-working her longtime image was getting into her first career slam singles final. Meanwhile, Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova, the world #82, was trying to extend a remarkable run that had seen her go from a player who last week got congratulations from a certain Backspinner for reaching her first-ever career 3rd Round at a slam to being one win away from becoming the first woman born in her country to ever reach a slam singles final. Heady stuff... and neither buried their head in the ground when it came to trying to do what they had to, either. Well, Zvonareva DID bury her head in a towel during changeovers... but she ALWAYS does that in her attempt to block out the voices of those little Russian dark angels that sometimes try to whisper the possibility of poisonous scenarios into her ears.

Before the match, Pironkova, who couldn't help but charm anyone who's familiar with her "well job, good done" recounting of what other players said to her after her upset of Venus in Melbourne in '06 (there, I finally found a place to put that in)), was seen in interview clips talking about how much she revered this tournament. And for a very long while, she played like it today, too. Getting the job done about as well as anyone could expect her to, the insane variety of her forehand and popping serve made it look as if she was on her way to the Wimbledon final. When a forehand return clipped the tape and landed inside the sideline, Pironkova got a break of Zvonareva's serve to go up 4-2. She claimed her eleventh straight set of the fortnight by a 6-3 score, winning seventeen of twenty first serve points and allowing the Russian just seven points on her serve the entire set as the talent that has led her to be able to pull off occasional upsets throughout her career was on full dispaly.

As the match wore on, though, unlike Venus Williams in the QF, Zvonareva became less and less frustrated with Pironkova's tactics. In Game #4, Zvonareva finally got her first break point chance. In Game #6, she got her first break and grabbed a 4-2 lead. She won the set 6-3, then opened the 3rd with a break, as well. With the Bulgarian's game starting to slightly go adrift, Zvonareva pounced just as she did in coming back from a set down to defeat Kim Clijsters in the QF. Pironkova staved off a huge hole, holding after facing two break points at 0-2 in the set, but she couldn't hold back the charging Russian from climbing back into the potential slam champion role that she was first starting to assume last spring before she tore up her ankle in Charleston. Zvonareva broke for a 4-1 lead, then came back from 15/40 on her own serve to go up 5-1. With her unexpectedly fine net play leading the way, she won 3-6/6-3/6-2 and moved within one win of obliterating all notions of herself as a player whose most devastating opponent is often herself. The Zvonareva we've seen at this Wimbledon doesn't waver down the stretch. She gets stronger.

As for Pironkova, the match was a microcosm of her career. She has the intriguing versatility to be both powerful AND crafty, able to cause Excedrin headaches AND put a player on her heels in the middle of a rally. The talent is there to get things done in this game, but somewhere along the line her consistency breaks down just enough to tilt the match in the direction of her opponent. Her game isn't one-note, but if one aspect of her bag of tricks starts to flag it makes the rest less effective. Thus, when she's on, she can beat anyone. When she's even slightly off, the final result of the match is often taken out of her hands. She was able to maintain her forward motion for much of this tournament, but Zvonareva's steadiness prevented it from doing so in this match.

While so many top seeds have fallen at this Wimbledon (all of them, to be exact, save the junior doubles competition), Serena Williams was still standing as the day began. The only thing blocking her path to a third straight final at SW19 was Petra Kvitova, a Czech living up to a national tennis legacy that was born during the days of Communism but has largely tailed off after the halving of Czechoslovakia in the post-Soviet era. Serena didn't have to go three sets to dispense with her first-time slam semifinalist opponent, but she didn't get her a free pass to a Saturday date on Centre Court, issued simply because of the defending champion's reputation, either. After seeing the likes of Federer and Venus lose, not to mention the doubles-dominating Sisters, NO ONE should be considered a lock for anything at this tournament. Kvitova pushed Serena's back against the wall and made her earn her place in the final two.

Rather than shudder at her new circumstances, Kvitova got an eary break to lead 3-2 in the opening set. She led 4-2, and Williams had to pull out a drop shot and an ace to make sure she didn't go down another break in her next service game. At 4-3, Kvitova blinked ever-so-slightly, and that was enough to open the door for Serena. The Czech should make it a learning experience. After being up 40/30, three consecutive errors by the 20-year old allowed the American to get the set back on serve. In the set-deciding tie-break, Williams went up 4-0, but still couldn't pull away. Kvitova saved two set points and got the score to 6-5 before Serena finally put away the 1st with a big serve.

With a hard-won edge in hand, Serena got a break in the 2nd to go up 3-2, and the Czech finally succumbed to the more experienced player. Williams won 7-6(5)/6-2, but Kvitova gave every reason to believe that she won't be a one-result-and-done player in the latter stages of a slam.

In the end, all four of these women succeeded, or came close enough to doing so to be able to say goodnight to Day 10 without any major regrets. The reputations of all will climb higher in the immediate aftermath of this tournament, not to mention come "new rankings day" on Monday. Already Hall-worthy Serena aside, now it's up to the other three to make sure their new reputations stick.

Kvitova, armed with a great lefty serve, proved that she might just have a very big future. The current "new" generation of tennis stars are the first to come of age in the post-Capriati Rule tournament-limiting tour landscape for teens. The rule, while possibly extending the back-end of careers of WTA players, has resulted in fewer youngsters making their marks before turning twenty. Kvitova, though, is suddenly a rare commodity -- a power player (unlike Wozniacki at last year's Open) who was able to scratch out a SF-or-better slam result in their teens or soon after, as she only turned 20 in March. It bodes well for her. Maybe even more impressive, though, was her steadiness in the face of pressure. She has more guts than anyone realized. The comeback from five match points and a 4-0 3rd set deficit against Kaia Kanepi in the QF was one thing, but the way she hung with Serena for most of the match with a Wimbledon final appearance on the line was even better. It doesn't matter that she ultimately lost. Better yet, she seemed upset with herself for not winning. That's what you want to see. It's certainly better than the get-me-out-of-here big stage performances we've seen from many of the better-known stars at this stage in many slams in recent seasons.

Pironkova, though her final Wimbledon match sort of hit all her career's power points (some eyebrow-raising good, others frustratingly less so), will soon find herself back in the Top 40 for the first time in ages and not subjected to having to go through qualifying rounds in order to be in position to pick up all-important main draw ranking points. She has her footing back in the WTA game, with that #100 ranking in her rear view mirror, and now just has to remember that her rare combo of crafty variety and potential power means that her days of not being able to string wins together SHOULD be over. After what she did in London, the excuses and "if only" sentiments (heard in this space for a few seasons since I didn't have the heart to criticize her harshly) are old news. For a long time, I know I've excused the Bulgarian's oft-wanting results with the "she's actually pretty good even if her results don't show it" rationalization for never knocking her down for being an "underachiever." With her reputation enhanced, such notions have to be put away for good. If she can't ride the confidence and momentum she SHOULD gain from this Wimbledon, then she'll only have herself to blame. There's no reason to believe she can't do it anymore. Well job, good done... but this needs to be the start of something better, not an aberration.

But only two of today's four participants have a chance for immediate rewards over the weekend.

Serena can win her fourth Wimbledon Ladies' championship on Saturday, thus edging close to trumping even her big sister Venus at her favorite stomping ground when it comes to total titles. The best player of her generation, even with the 30-year old "line of demarcation" within sight, still has no equal. With slam #13 in hand, the push to match Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's eighteen career majors would be on. After that, Steffi Graf (22) would feel her breathing down her neck. Truly historical things are within her grasp.

Vera Zvonareva, though, is the player who stands the most to gain from this Wimbledon. Outside of people who pay attention on a weekly basis (which pretty much rules out 95% of the on-air personalities at ESPN), she's only a vaguely-known name. If that. Even though she was a slam semifinalist, Olympic medalist and Top 5 player, her match-up against Kim Clijsters was referred to on NBC yesterday as "an apparent mismatch." She has a chance to change that now. With one more win, she can go from "some Russian" lost in the Hordette mix over the years to the player at the center of a story of perseverence, rising like a Phoenix from both hard-to-watch emotional outbursts and a potentially career-limiting injury that struck just when she seemed to have gotten everything to work together without any glitches. Throw in her not-to-be-taken-lightly future goal to be a Russian diplomat and you've got the story of a "late bloomer" whose best days could even come AFTER an admirable athletic career. Imagine that -- a well-rounded tennis player, both on and off court. That's a reputation worth garnering and passing around the table for discussion. It makes EVERYONE look good.

Four players arrived at Centre Court today with visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads. They left with no reason to believe that they can't still taste them. A pretty good day's work, I'd say.

...the Girls semis are set, and a Pliskova sister is STILL alive. Kristyna defeated Sloane Stephens in the QF by a 4-6/6-1/9-7 score. She'll meet Yulia Putintseva, who knocked off RG junior runner-up Ons Jabeur today. Meanwhile, '08 Wimbledon junior champ Laura Robson, after defeating fellow Brit wild card Tara Moore, is still alive with a chance to become the first two-time winner of the SW19 Girls title since Czech Andrea Strnadova in 1990 (but she'd be the first to ever win titles in non-consecutive years). She'll meet Japan's Sachie Ishizu in the SF.

The #2-seeded Pliskova sisters have also advanced into the Girls Doubles QF. Most of the top teams are still alive there (as opposed to the Men's Doubles, which has a final between the #16 team and an unseeded one), as seven of the Top 8 seeds remain, including #1 Irina Khromacheva/Elina Svitolina and #3 Jabeur/Monica Puig.

Oh, and on a side note, I finally realized why I found myself called "Monica" Puig by the name "Claudia" a few weeks ago. I realized today that there's an entertainment writer at USA Today named "Claudia Puig" whose work I ready on a regular basis. I wondered why that name was stuck in my head and sometimes came out when I was referring to the Puerto Rican junior. Now I know. Whew! One tiny mystery solved.

A few nominees for the final two Wimbledon awards:

Gisela Dulko/Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA (playing for their first career slam titles)
Lisa Raymond, USA (out in doubles, but alive in Mixed)
Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova, USA/KAZ
Rennae Stubbs, AUS (a slam Mixed title at nearly 40?)
Elena Vesnina/Vera Zvonareva, RUS/RUS (def. Venus & Serena... enough said)

Sachie Ishizu, JPN (would be first Japanese girl slam champ since Kazuko Sawamatsu in '69)
Kristyna Pliskova, CZE (ready to join sister as '10 Junior Slam winner? Sisters alive in doubles.)
Yulia Putintseva, RUS (the Hordette wave continues to wash over the WTA shore)

...and, finally, never let it be said that NBC can't find a way to screw up tennis coverage in North America. This development was a given from the start, once the network's schedule was set, but it's still mindboggling. Even though ESPN2 was on air all morning, it could only show the Zvonareva/Pironkova match live starting at 8am, but not the Williams/Kvitova one that began around 10am. So, after having coverage begin at 10am all week, NBC's coverage block doesn't start until 12 noon on Thursday and Friday, when the women's and men's SF take place. Therefore, ESPN2 today aired taped coverage of the Federer/Berdych match so that it appeared to be Wednesday again, while the second women's semi was taking place, so that NBC could show the Williams match, on tape, two hours later. The same thing will happen on Friday, too, unless the first men's SF lasts four or five hours and the second doesn't begin until after twelve.

Somehow, I don't think this is the sort of time machine Venus talked about, or Roger might have wanted to hop into, yesterday.

[Late Note: just a few minutes ago, on a version of SportsCenter, I overheard a pair of ESPN no-nothings doing a Williams/Kvitova highlight package. They literally checked with each other, then agreed throughout to pronounce the name KEY-vuh-tova. Seriously, is it so much to ask for the network that airs the damn tournament to not have newsreaders laugh off the fact that they can't pronounce a player's name? Rather than ask each other -- talk about the blind leading the blind -- how about, oh, I don't know, asking someone at the network that, I repeat, AIRS THE TOURNAMENT how a name is pronounced? Would they continually do this with NBA or NHL players with the same European background and similar-sounding names? No. How about all the soccer players in the World Cup? Somehow, I suspect they get a cheat sheet there that tells them how to say things so viewers won't be offended. Tennis? It never happens. The funny thing is that, a few years, ESPN aired a reality competition show where people competed to become a reader on ESPNEWS, and one of the things that was drilled into them throughout the series was how important it was to say the athletes' names correctly. Nice to see that they practice what they preach.]

1974 Wimbledon - Chris Evert def. Olga Morozova
1974 US Open - Chris Evert def. Olga Morozova
2004 Roland Garros - Anastasia Myskina def. Elena Dementieva
2004 Wimbledon - Maria Sharapova def. Serena Williams
2004 US Open - Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Elena Dementieva
2006 Roland Garros - Justine Henin-Hardenne def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2006 US Open - Maria Sharapova def. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Australian Open - Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
2007 US Open - Justine Henin def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2008 Australian Open - Maria Sharapova def. Ana Ivanovic
2008 Roland Garros - Ana Ivanovic def. Dinara Safina
2009 Australian Open - Serena Williams def. Dinara Safina
2009 Roland Garros - Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Dinara Safina
2010 Wimbledon - Serena Williams vs. Vera Zvonareva

8...Venus Williams (5-3)
2...Justine Henin (0-2)
1...Maria Sharapova (1-0)
1...Marion Bartoli (0-1)

45 - Jana Novotna (1998 Wimbledon)
39 - Francesca Schiavone (2010 Roland Garros)
31 - Amelie Mauresmo (2006 Australian Open)
=[Vera Zvonareva in 30th slam]=
29 - Jennifer Capriati (2001 Australian Open)

[all with 2]
1950-51 - Galina Baksheeva, USSR
1961-62 - Lorna Cornell, GBR
1975-76 - Natasha Chmyreva, USSR
1986-87 - Natasha Zvereva, USSR (post-Soviet Union, played under "BLR")
1989-90 - Andrea Strnadova, CZE
NOTE: '08 champion Laura Robson in '10 semfinals

#1 Serena Williams/USA vs. #21 Vera Zvonareva/RUS

#12 Tomas Berdych/CZE vs .#3 Novak Djokovic/SRB
#4 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

#12 Vesnina/Zvonareva (RUS/RUS) vs.
#4 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA)
King/Shvedova (USA/KAZ) vs. #2 Huber/Mattek-Sands (USA/USA)

#16 Lindstedt/Tecau (SWE/ROU) vs. Melzer/Petzschner (AUT/GER)

#10 Stubbs/Melo (AUS/BRA) vs. #11 Raymond/Moodie (USA/RSA)
#9 Benesova/Dlouhy (CZE/CZE) vs. #2 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND)

#15 Yulia Putintseva/RUS vs. #9 Kristyna Pliskova/CZE
#8/WC Laura Robson/GBR vs. #10 Sachie Ishizu/JPN

Oliver Golding/GBR vs. (Q) Benjamin Mitchell/AUS
Facundo Arguello/ARG vs. #13 Marton Fucsovics/HUN

#1 Khromacheva/Svitolina (RUS/UKR) vs. Allertova/Butkovska (CZE/SVK)
#3 Jabeur/Puig (TUN/PUR) vs. #7 Kolar/Skamlova (SLO/SVK)
#6 Mestach/Njiric (BEL/CRO) vs. #4 Babos/Stephens (HUN/USA)
#5 Cepede Royg/Dinu (PAR/ROU) vs. #2 Pliskova/Pliskova (CZE/CZE)

Burton/Morgan (GBR/GBR) vs. Fucsovics/Salaba (HUN/CZE)
#4 Gomez/Uchiyama (COL/JPN) vs. #5 Heller/Kraweitz (GER/GER)
#7 Clezar/Fernandez (ARG/ARG) vs. Broady/Farquharson (GBR/GBR)
Biryukov/Rumyantsev (RUS/RUS) vs. (WC) Gabb/Hewitt (GBR/GBR)

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Kaia Kanepi/EST
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #2 Venus Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Junri Namigata/JPN def. Karolina Pliskova/CZE 6-2/4-6/14-12
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - #24 Daniela Hantuchova/SVK def. Vania King/USA 6-7/7-6/6-3
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - Petra Kvitova/CZE def. (Q)Kaia Kanepi/EST 4-6/7-6/8-6
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: Petra Kvitova/CZE
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Tsvetana Pironkova/BUL
CRASH & BURN: Francesca Schiavone/ITA & Samantha Stosur/AUS (RG finalists, both lost in 1st Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Petra Kvitova/CZE (down 5 MP, and 0-4 in 3rd, to Kaia Kanepi/EST in QF; won 8-6)
LAST BRIT STANDING: Heather Watson/GBR (last of six to lose in 1st Rd.)

All for Day 10. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

TOdd, you have wrote of Vera? 2010, SW def. VZ. I hope There's a miracle here.

I actually recalled that I went for the NBC studio tour few months ago. It was forgettable, boring and I barely recalled it..

Thu Jul 01, 09:15:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

sigh... justine's fall is a costly one. torn ligament and out for 2 months. she shouldn't have played on but she did. damn, she should have won.

Fri Jul 02, 10:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kumar said...

Such a pity WICKmayer II (foretold by you, Todd :)) could not happen, ESPN doesn't get to interview on court.

So impressive from Vera, it was eye-opening, even after her cool dismissal of Kim. I must confess though, that I had a sneaky longing for a mini-meltdown sometime in the first set (the letcord for the first break would have been the logical tipping point for Bepa of the past). Still, so happy for her. I give her a good shot in the final.

Fri Jul 02, 02:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...


Ha. I didn't realize I did that. Alas, I was Pam Shriver for a few moments there. :)

Fri Jul 02, 04:37:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Todd, at least it's not Berdych vs Murray in the men's final ;)

There's next year, Murray!

Fri Jul 02, 05:54:00 PM EDT  

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