Wednesday, August 25, 2010

BACKSPIN TIME CAPSULE: 2006 U.S. Open - More than "Exquisite in the City"



(twelfth in a series)

While the U.S. Open has drama built into its very foundation, the 2006 version gave us one of those tournaments at Flushing Meadows from which all sorts of memories were bound to be born.

For one, before the event had even started we knew that a pair of tennis legends -- Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova -- had decided to call it quits for good once the Open had concluded. Beyond that, Justine Henin-Hardenne was trying to become the first woman in nine years to reach the finals of all four slams in a calendar year, while Amelie Mauresmo (who'd beaten the Belgian in two slam finals already in '06), was attempting to see if her newly-found nerves of steel would translate into her finally being able to be as graceful on the courts at Flushing Meadows as she'd been in Melbourne and London. Maria Sharapova, too, was seeking to prove that her title-winning run as a 17-year old at Wimbledon was nothing short of a preview of bigger and better things... but it'd been more than two years since she'd played in a grand slam final. Then we had the not-as-chaotic-as-she-would-eventually-become coming out party of one Miss Jelena Jankovic. She'd go on to achieve many goals following her '06 Open run, but the first wacky seeds she planted in NYC that summer still blossom in our collective mind's eye today.

Oh, and then there are those four words that conger all the images of style and sport that eventually came to symbolize the event: the little black dress.

The '06 Open was more than just "Exquisite in the City," and the stems of many of the flowering storylines that originated during those two weeks still spark thrilling memories today. It's only been four years, but it SEEMS so many more ago. Maybe it's just our minds playing tricks with us.

Anyway, in a bit of a change-up from the usual Time Capsule format, here's a look back at the '06 Open as I saw it then, not quite day-by-day... but as close to it as reasonably possible:



...thanks to a rainy opening to the week, the '06 Open got off to a slow start. Maria Sharapova's scheduled Day 2 debut was delayed for twenty-four hours. It only served to heighten the anticipation of her tournament "unveiling" under the lights on Ashe. Better yet, once she arrived she did anything but disappoint.

Day 3 - "The Little Black Dress"

If they awarded grand slam titles after one match, then Maria Sharapova would have her first U.S. Open championship all but wrapped up.

It should really come as no surprise. After all, she was nothing if not dressed for success on Wednesday night.



Her classic little black dress was as elegant as Serena's infamous catsuit was... um... let's just say "interesting." But Sharapova didn't destroy Michaella Krajicek 6-3/6-0 in what was supposed to be a tough match because the Dutch teenager was mesmerized by Maria's fashion sense. The Supernova's game was simply as stylish as her ensemble. There was no Mashona Washington-inspired scare that required the on-court arrival of some pesky pigeons for her to escape with a victory this time around.

On Day 3, it was the rest of the field that might have reason to worry. The Lady in Black has arrived in New York, and she doesn't look as if she wants to go home empty-handed.


***

...Vania King will indeed have a nighttime presence on Arthur Ashe Stadium tomorrow, but it won't be for her 2nd Round match against Justine Henin-Hardenne. That'll take place during the day. At night, she'll be singing the national anthem before the night session. Way to go, Vania.



...Sharapova had to make a quick turnaround on Day 4, getting things back on schedule by playing for a second straight day. Poor Emilie Loit. She could have used another day to prepare.

Meanwhile, Daniela Hantuchova once again displayed the sort of form that -- unlike Sharapova's -- fell far short of what everyone had expected from her on the big stages of the tennis world when she initially broke through and quickly climbed into the Top 5.

Day 4 - "La Belle Dame Sans Merci & the Grand Deception"

Quick! Someone find a strainer to catch at least a little of what's left of Daniela Hantuchova before she goes down the drain!

Whoops... looks like it might be too late.

On Day 4, while Wonder Girl continued her "one step forward, two steps back" headlong plunge toward oblivion, the Supernova was still running on the leftover adrenaline from Day 3's outing in the little black dress.

Maria Sharapova's skin apparently retained some remnants of the little black dress' magic, or at least that's the idea that Emilie Loit had to be clinging to as she fell behind 6-0/4-0 against the #3 seed in their 2nd Round match. The afterglow did eventually go away, but it didn't stop Sharapova from advancing while surrending just one game in the match. So far at this Open, it's fair to say that the Supernova has assumed the role of La Belle Dame Sans Merci -- the beautiful lady without mercy.

(All right, I admit it. I've had that one setting around for quite a while, waiting for an appropriate moment to use it... and this seemed as good a time as ever, don't you think?)

It certainly appears that Hantuchova will never be able to claim such a title. In her 2nd Round match against Serena Williams, all the old bugaboos came back to haunt her once again. Serving up 5-3 in the 1st set, her game simply became unhinged. Bad drop shots. Double faults. Soon she'd lost the set 5-7, and was down 0-3 in the 2nd. With the match all but over, she finally rejoined the rest of us in 2006... not that it mattered. She still lost 5-7/3-6.

Four years ago, when Hantuchova claimed her first singles title in Indian Wells, the tennis world saw fit to build her an impromptu throne. She was dubbed the next great marketing doll/tool for the tour, and one with a game to back up all the attention. I, for one, never really bought into the hype, hence the dripping-with-sarcasm birth of her "Wonder Girl" moniker (originally, it was meant to be said with an accompanying eye roll... though it's now used without such disdain), but I was open to being wrong about her.

I wasn't, though. The "legend" of Hantuchova DID turn out to be THE grand deception of the 21st century so far (well, at least the biggest one that doesn't involve the Bush administration). The Tour's post-Kournikova dream scenario never happened (well, at least not for Hantuchova... it DID become a reality with Sharapova, and could again with Nicole Vaidisova).

Hantuchova reached the Top 5, then crashed physically and emotionally. She's never been able to come close to reclaiming her former position, nor even win another title. Rather than being a prelude to a great career, Indian Wells '02 has turned out to be a teasing aberration. Collapses like the one against Williams today are just another sign that things are still a very long way from turning around... if they EVER will.

Maybe Hantuchova should be given some credit for trying, though. Some can't handle the long climb back (Jelena Dokic, at #4 when Hantuchova was #5, has chosen to alternately swim upstream or just flat out disappear). But, then again, there are few sights in sports that are more discouraging than watching what was thought to be the career of a grand talent turn out to be something so far less than expected that the athlete becomes something of a figure of sadness even though their performances would be lauded were they someone who'd been burdened with far less expectation when they were young.

Who knows, maybe Hantuchova will one day rise from the ashes ala Jennifer Capriati... but it's difficult to envision such a resurrection when Wonder Girl has days like she had today.


***

..."Attention wise, fashion foolish?"... Bethanie Mattek, the same player who brought us the 1970's boardwalk rollerskater & soccer enthusiast look at Wimbledon, gave the world another loopy look the other day:



Who knew living room drapes could double as sporting attire? And, yes, those look like leg warmers (naturally). Well, at least she got her picture distributed all over the net again. "Good" for her... right? Yeah, maybe not.




...the '06 Open began with the knowledge that it would be Andre Agassi's final go-around in his Hall of Fame career, as the 36-year old American had announced beforehand that he would retire following the event. No one knew what to expect from him (or his ailing back), as he'd managed to make an unexpected run to the final at Flushing Meadows one year earlier. Surely everyone wished for a Connorsican run deep into the tournament's second week, but in their collective heart of hearts they knew it wasn't a likely scenario. That being the case, one final classic Agassi match under the lights of Ashe would be worth its weight in gold (and lasting tennis memories). As it turned out, Cyprus showman Marcos Baghdatis helped Andre oblige the masses.

Alas, it would be Agassi's final victory as a professional, as his storied career would end one round later. But it was something to hold onto forever.

Day 4.5 - "Late Night with Andre"

Andre Agassi is squeezing every last drop of emotion and drama out of the final Act of his career playing out at the U.S. Open.

Thursday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, for a while, looked as if it was going to include a surprisingly routine win for the 36-year old American over #8-seeded Marcos Baghdatis, fifteen years his junior and runner-up at the Australian Open this year before his semifinal run at Wimbledon earlier this summer. The Cypriot was curiously off his game and perhaps distracted by the atmosphere that made the homemade signs that read "Andre's House" seem perfectly appropriate.

Agassi won the first two sets 6-4/6-4 and was on his way to an under-two hour victory. Baghdatis seemed to sense that the crowd wanted Agassi to survive to fight another day more than it desired a great, epic match, and he seemed willing to oblige as he watched "the wave" travel round the stadium with a grin on his face. He seemed to want no part in playing the villain in Agassi's Superman play. Boy, was that assumption wrong. As it turned out, Baghdatis turned the big afterschool party into another unforgettable episode of "Late Night with Andre."

Move over, David Letterman.

Baghdatis is one of the most exciting and excitable players on tour, and he proved it once again on perhaps the sport's biggest stage in this 2nd Round match. As he began to pump himself up with brilliant shotmaking and pounded his chest as he showed the heart that makes him so fun to watch, he claimed the 3rd set 6-3 and roared back from a 0-4 deficit in the 4th to knot the match with a 7-5 win.

Then things really got weird... in a matter of minutes, we were only an episode of projectile vomiting away from seeing a Stephen King novella play out before our eyes. (Well, that or one of those old Pete Sampras matches where he's tossing his lunch in the corner of the court in between hitting blistering forehands down the line.)



As the 5th set turned into a game-by-game fight for the continuation of Agassi's career, at 4-4 Deuce on Agassi's serve Baghdatis was suddenly struck with leg cramps that alternately sent him crumpled into a heap on the court, bent over in the corner, hopping around like a mad kangaroo, or hobbling from side to side like a stoop-backed great-grandfather.

Suddenly, we had something different altogether.

But rather than fold, Baghdatis began going for outright Sampras-like winners early in points, while Agassi became tentative and/or perplexed about how to play a hampered opponent backed into a corner and throwing out any and every weapon at his disposal simply to keep from shriveling up into a raisin in front of 20,000-plus spectators. Eight deuces later, Agassi finally won the game.

Whew!

The match had turned into a classic before everyone's eyes, with Agassi's career (and tired back?) teetering in the balance, and everyone wondering whether that 20-minute cortisone shot would last as the match time ticked past 3:30 and 12:30am (again) quickly approached.

In the end, when Baghdatis' final shot sailed past the baseline and a relieved Agassi approached the net, everyone in the stands was allowed to breath again. The legend was still alive and kicking (even if he won't be able to stand up in the morning).

With Baghdatis outlasted and unable to play the role of "villain" (ironically, he probably became a "hero" himself in the process), Andre's New York show now brings us a final Agassi-Becker clash. No, it's not that Becker, but it doesn't matter. Maybe it'll be Andy Roddick who ultimately dons the black hat in the Round of 16, but who's to say how this story will end at this point?

No one wants this ride to end... and maybe it won't. At this point, this bald guy doesn't seem to be able to do anything wrong. Maybe he never will in this final, potentially magical journey.

Ah, just another "average" night in New York, huh? Eat your heart out Mr. Letterman... Andre owns the late night now. At least for a little while longer.

(Boy, now we're REALLY going to miss him when he's gone.)




...less than four years before her stunning grand slam title win in Paris, Francesca Schiavone was still a player who'd yet to win a single TOUR TITLE in her career. At age 26, the Italian vet played out a match storyline against Shahar Peer that was far too common at this point in her career. As surprising as her Roland Garros run this past spring was at the time, the knowledge of it would have have been akin to being flattened by a feather had we been able to gaze into the future and witness it after what happened to her on Day 5 at the Open in 2006.

On the other hand, another player who didn't rise to the occasion on this day four years ago -- Nicole Vaidisova -- was judged to simply have been delivered a "learning experience" by a certain not-yet-as-chaotic-as-she'd-soon-be Serb. As it turned out, the Czech's loss was but a power point in the beginning of what would be a career that would soon meet a premature end. After notching four QF-or-better slam results in 2007-08 (including an Oz SF in '07), her tennis career (or at least her FIRST one) ended earlier this season when she retired at age 20 after a prolonged slump/period of indifference and married ATP player Radek Stepanek.

Day 5 - "Jana Would Be Proud"

Try as they might to get fully back on schedule before the weekend, the tournament organizers of the U.S. Open were again denied their goal by good ol' Mother Nature.

But Shahar Peer managed to make the most of her time during Day 5. Francesca Schiavone? Ummmm... not quite so much.

LOVE-LOVE... this is hardly the type of news you want to be making at a grand slam, Ms. Schiavone. You know you've had a nightmare of a day when being reminded that Jana Novotna DID lose to Chanda Rubin after leading 5-0, 40-0 in the 3rd set at Roland Garros in 1995 is the only way to avoid believing that no one has EVER choked away a match as badly as you just did. Of course, not that Schiavone will ever forget (or maybe live down) fumbling away a 5-1 3rd set lead over Peer in which she blew five match points as the Israeli teen won 6-3/6-7/7-6. In the end, Novotna won 24 singles titles, including one grand slam in her Hall of Fame career. Schiavone is still stuck on zero career wins, and why the title-less Italian is still as such at age 26 has rarely been as crystal clear as it is right about now.

=============================
LOVE-15... if not for Schiavone's dive off the face of a steep cliff, the biggest news of the day would be the three-set win by Jelena Jankovic over Nicole Vaidisova, who'll now have to wait until '07 for that elusive first grand slam final. Chalk it up as another learning experience. With the 5-7/6-3/6-2 win, though, Jankovic has proven to still have the finishing touch she discovered last month in L.A. after having it usually turn up M.I.A. throughout her career. With Vaidisova out of the way, Jankovic has the chance to seize a huge opportunity against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Round of 16.
=============================
LOVE-30... let's just stick that Schiavone loss in an envelope and mail it to ourselves. There are two months or so left in this season, but when we open that letter in November who wants to bet that it'll still be the worst choke of the 2006 season?
=============================
LOVE-40... meanwhile, Justine had the hiccups on Day 5. For one set. After losing the opening stanza 6-4 to Ai Sugiyama, she proceeded to crush the Japanese vet (I won't say "Godzilla vs. Tokyo style"... why, that would be tacky) 6-1/6-0 in the final two sets.
=============================
GAME, "MAYBE ALESSIO & JELENA KOSTANIC SHOULD MEET FOR DINNER"... after Di Mauro was wiped out Godzilla vs. Tokyo style (here's a BETTER spot) by Andy Murray on Thursday, losing by a 6-0/6-1/6-1 score. It wasn't the double-bagel that Kostanic suffered against Lindsay Davenport the other day, but I'm sure the two would still have something in common to talk about.
=============================




...after being a player who was extremely difficult to get a bead on throughout her career, Jelena Jankovic was finally beginning to come into her own in 2006. Earlier that year, she nearly retired (or so she has said) after going through a 1-10 slump. But by the time the tour hit the North American hardcourts during the summer, she'd found her groove... and her sense of drama. As she advanced into her first career slam semifinal at Flushing Meadows, JJ wasn't yet the Queen Chaos symbol of all that is eyeroll-worthy that is so beloved on the Backspin landscape today. But she WAS starting to breakout as a truly unique character.

She, and we, have been all the better for it, too.

Day 9 - "The One and Only"

Jelena Jankovic used to be referred to around here as "the other Jelena." No longer. Now, she's looking like the one and only.

It's been a strange trip from there to here for Jankovic.

Once Jelena Dokic was no longer listed as "Serbian," though that label was always an iffy proposition at best depending on her constantly changing familial state of mind, Jankovic got a leg up on coming into her own. Once Dokic continued to fade from the tennis landscape in '06, possibly never to return from her trip through the looking glass, Jankovic stood alone.

But a coaching change and that 1-10 start wrecked the beginning of her season's story. She had horrible timing, it seemed. But as things have played out as the season has worn on, Jankovic's timing has turned out to be quite exquisite.

In Los Angeles last month, she displayed a breezy attitude and a killer game as she upset eventual U.S. Open Series champion Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams, only to lose to Elena Dementieva in a three-set final. Today in New York, after showing she had developed quite a finishing touch against Nicole Vaidisova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, she finally finished what she started in southern California.

In the only major singles match that was able to be completed on Tuesday, Jankovic wiped out Dementieva 6-2/6-1 (Punch Sober never once held her serve!) to reach her first grand slam semifinal (not to mention earn a little rest while the remaining players will have to scramble to make up for another virtual rain-out at Flushing Meadows).

Thus, the one and only Jelena was the one and only player in the spotlight on Day 9. Talk about perfect timing.




...the string of bad luck that began to strike Tatiana Golovin's soon-to-be star-crossed career during the course of the '06 season was still fresh during the Open. Thankfully, though, so was Golovin at that point. After having been injured while playing Sharapova in Miami earlier in the season, on Day 10 at Flushing Meadows, she gave Sharapova a battle in the quarterfinals.

Unfortunately, injuries forced "The Frussian Pastry" (oh, that's a nickname I REALLY miss) off the tour in early '08, and she's never returned.

Meanwhile, while Agassi's career had concluded during the Open's first week, Martina Navratilova's continued. Preparing to walk away from the sport, one month shy of age 50, for the final time after concluding play at Flushing Meadows, she keep hope alive deep into the second week for a final title to put a finish touch on her incredible career.

Day 10 - "You Do the Voodoo That You Do So Well"

Maybe Tatiana Golovin should just try to avoid Maria Sharapova at all costs, since every time she gets on a roll she soon finds herself staring across the net at the Supernova... and the wheels fall off her smooth ride.

Playing the best tennis of her life in Miami early this year, she backed Sharapova into a corner in their SF match... then bent her ankle in a direction it just wasn't meant to go. On Wednesday night, experiencing the best slam of her career, Golovin's QF meeting with the Supernova had a taste of the same oddly dramatic sense of theater.

Down 0-3 in the 1st set tie-breaker, Golovin split open a blister on her foot and called for a trainer. As Sharapova waited and tried not to have her game go cold, she jumped around and practiced serving... while anyone who remembered Miami recalled how Sharapova took several bathroom breaks during the match that weren't exactly met with a warm reaction from the pro-Golovin crowd (the Frussian Pastry lives in Miami), and that the Supernova was ridiculously criticized after the match for never looking at the fallen Golovin and not showing enough concern for her (she stood near the wall, practicing her swing), despite the fact that she had no way of knowing the full extent of her opponent's injury at that particular moment in time, as Golovin even tried to play on.

This time, Sharapova couldn't help but look at Golovin as she ran across in front of her to her chair next to the umpire... but the uneasiness of the situation was readily apparent.

In the end, Golovin didn't have to retire this time around. She was just forced to witness Sharapova's ability to play the big points oh so well in her 7-6/7-6 victory. The win puts the Russian teen into her sixth semifinal in her last eight slams.

So far, though, Sharapova's 0-5 in those SF matches... and will now face Amelie Mauresmo, who's rather stealthily rounded her game into shape in New York, a player the Supernova (0-3 so far) has never beaten.

Whatever voodoo hex Sharapova has had placed on Golovin, she'd better find the witch doctor who did it fast. It looks like she's going to need something more than a little black dress to finally break through her slam SF glass ceiling.

Can you say, Amelie vs. Justine... again?


***

...Andre is gone, but Martina lives. At least for one more day. Navratilova has advanced to the quarterfinals in both Doubles (with Nadia Petrova) and Mixed (with Bob Bryan), and is scheduled to play both matches on Day 11. Navratilova/Petrova faces #1-seeded Raymond/Stubbs, while Navratilova/Byran will square off against Groenefeld/Cermak. It could be another great day for Martina, or the end of an era. Backspin is crossing fingers and toes for at least a few more days of the Greatest Player Who Ever Lived.

...it's never good to be scrawny, tired and unprepared if you're a professional tennis player. Andy Murray says he's not a morning person, but maybe he needs to start eating his Wheaties on the morning of a big match in the a.m., huh? At the net, Nikolay Davydenko looked almost sorry for Murray after he bageled him in the lightning-quick, blink-and-you'll-miss-it final set of their Round of 16 match. Victory over Roger Federer or not, Brad Gilbert has his work cut out for him with Murray. Thankfully, the clay is pretty good. Now it just needs to be molded into a reasonable facsimile of a grand slam contender.




...as the women's final four was set, the possibilities for the final match-up seemed endless, and full of storylines to sink our teeth into.

Day 11 - "Pick Your Poison"

The moment of truth has arrived, as the final four women remaining in the final grand slam of the season must now sort out their differences.

In a rather slow day of play dominated by doubles and junior action, about the only thing to debate other than whether or not Martina Navratilova should retire is which matchup in the women's final would be better:

Henin-Hardenne vs. Sharapova... this has been the popular pick from Day 1, with these two the most experienced/healthy/in form pair heading into the Open. For the most part, things haven't changed. JHH is going for a fourth slam final in '06, while Sharapova hasn't gotten past the SF in a slam since winning Wimbledon two years ago. But the "secret weapon" with this match is that one of the Open's biggest stars -- the little black dress -- would get a final turn around the dance floor.

Mauresmo vs. Henin-Hardenne... will the '06 slam trilogy become a reality? Could Mauresmo REALLY be going for THREE slams in a single year, and could JHH REALLY lose three slam finals to the same person in less than eight months? As sexy as a JHH/Supernova match-up would appear to be, this one has so many more juicy subplots. Melbourne has been the axis on which both players' seasons have turned, for both good and bad, and what more fitting way for the slam season to end could be found than for the year's top two players/adversaries to meet in a battle for what'll likely be the #1 ranking and "Player of the Year" honors? After the season she's had, this is all icing on the cake for Mauresmo. JHH, though, still may think she has something to prove to all the critics who hounded her for her Australian Open final retirement... and what she couldn't do at SW19 against Mauresmo she might have a better shot at doing at Flushing Meadows.

Jelena Jankovic vs. anyone... nothing against Jelena, but her story just has to end here, doesn't it? Otherwise, she'd be one of the most improbable slam finalists in recent memory. We're talking Iva Majoli territory here. Of course, Majoli beat Hingis in that Roland Garros final in '97, didn't she? Hmmm, maybe she WOULD be an interesting finalist... but she'd HAVE to WIN the whole shooting match to make it worthwhile. What are the chances of that?

So, pick your poison. Either way, center stage will be waiting for two women on Arthur Ashe come Saturday night. Now it's just a matter of who'll walk out from backstage when the curtain opens.


***

...Martina Navartilova may have lost her Doubles match during the day, but she and Bob Bryan advanced to the Mixed SF with a nighttime win over Groenefeld/Cermak. They'll next face Shaughnessy/Gimelstob, and Martina is already muttering about getting back at the male half of the American pair for hitting her with a shot a few months ago at Wimbledon. Ahh, we're gonna miss her.



...Sharapova's '06 Open train began to pick up speed as the final neared, as she derailed '06 Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo's bid for a trio of slam titles by bageling her in two of three sets in their semifinal meeting. Awaiting her in the final would be Henin-Hardenne... but not until she teetered on the edge of defeat at the hands of Jankovic.

JJ's collapse after being five points away from an improbable final run was the beginning of the "Queen Chaos Era" (although the moniker wouldn't come until later). She'd eventually reach the Open final two years later AND become the #1 player in the world, cobbling together a nice (and maybe not yet complete) legacy from the ashes of a career that nearly voluntarily ended before she even played this Day 12 match against the Belgian. Again, or so JJ says... for as we first began to glean so well in this match, she's more prone to dramatic over and understatements than any other tennis player on the horizon.

Ah, bless her heart.

Day 12 - "Shock and Awesome"

On Day 12 of the 2006 U.S. Open, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova reminded everyone precisely how they originally introduced themselves on the grand slam stage just a few seasons ago.

Through a series of shock and awe moments on Friday, they forcibly pushed and shoved their way past their shell-shocked opponents into the Saturday night meeting that had always appeared to be the most likely final weekend match-up when this tournament began nearly two weeks ago.

Back in 2003, "Le Petit Taureau" was born in a season that saw Henin-Hardenne fight through debilitating leg cramps to defeat Lindsay Davenport in a 9-7 3rd set in an Australian Open 4th Round contest, win her first slam crown in Roland Garros, then come to New York and survive back-to-back SF & Final matches against Jennifer Capriati (a three-hour contest where she was two points from defeat ten times, trailing 3-5 in the 2nd set and 2-5 in the 3rd) and, less than twenty-four hours later, Kim Clijsters despite being on the cusp (and teetering on the edge) of exhaustion.

A year later, a 17-year old Sharapova transformed herself from a player with great potential into a giant killer in front of everyone's eyes at Wimbledon. After a come-from-behind win over Davenport in the SF, she went "Supernova" as she shocked Serena Williams in the final, leaving the sportsworld in awe, and Madison Avenue banging down her door.

On Friday, Justine once again did what she did best... hold on against all odds and live to tell about it. Longshot semifinalist Jelena Jankovic was looking like anything but that in today's match. With Henin-Hardenne battling her own serve and the Serbian 21-year old hitting clean winners from all over the court, JHH fell behind 1-4 in the 1st set, ultimately losing it 6-4 after holding her serve just once in five attempts.

Later in the day, Maria blasted through world #1 Amelie Mauresmo, bageling the winner of two '06 grand slams in the 1st set. In a nip-and-tuck 2nd set, the Frenchwoman provided more evidence of her new-found resilience as she claimed the set 6-4 to force a deciding third stanza. If Sharapova was going to break her 0-for-5 slam SF streak, and reverse her 0-for-3 career mark against Mauresmo, she was going to have to reach back for the awe of '04.

Even while being able to break back to prevent a landslide loss, Henin-Hardenne still couldn't make up ground during the 2nd set of a match that saw her having tossed in eleven double-faults in a little more than a set and a half after having had just ten through the tournament's first five rounds. With Jankovic serving, JHH was down 4-6/2-4 30/40, and her shot to play in a fourth '06 slam final (something no woman had done since Martina Hingis in 1997) was about to disintigrate.

But then it happened.



Jankovic crazily got into an argument with the chair umpire for not being willing to overturn poor line calls (forcing her to use her replay challenges). Jankovic had had JHH cornered, but her own distraction gave "Le Petit Taureau" an opening... and it was all the Belgian needed to survive, and then thrive. After the argument, the Serbian immediately double-faulted on game point. Moments later, she'd been broken and her advantage erased.

Jankovic wouldn't win another game in the match.

With the crowd anticipating a heated 3rd set battle between Sharapova and Mauresmo, the shock that Sharapova created in the 1st set returned in full. After Amelie's leaping fist punch to celebrate her knotting of the match, she wouldn't win another game. The final set went just as the 1st as she was bageled by the 19-year old Russian once again in the 6-0/4-6/6-0 match.

Henin-Hardenne took the final ten games of HER match, finding her form just in time and winning 4-6/6-4/6-0... leaving Jankovic as disappointed in herself as JHH had to be proud of her own ability to persevere as she had back in 2003. Thus, on Day 12, the astounding lack of appreciation for "Le Petit Taureau's" laudable fighter's instincts that was displayed by the pouncing critics after Melbourne was once again called out to be the odious (not to mention forgetful) attack it was. Not to say "I told you so," but... I told you so.

Meanwhile, Sharapova's first slam final since claiming a Wimbledon title at least a year ahead of optimistic prognostications should have a quieting effect on any of the critics who'd begun to mutter under their breaths about her not living up to the expectations generated by her SW19 exploits. She's still improving... so imagine where she'll be a year from now.

Questions asked have now been countered with emphatic answers by both Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova. Now, there's only one more left: Who's going to win on Saturday night?

Whichever one it turns out to be, it'll be a moment worth savoring by the winner's backers, and a poke in the eye to their detractors.

Shock and awe THAT, boys and girls. No, make that "shock and awesome."


***

... Martina Navratilova, if she indeed does ultimately never play again, has a chance to go out in style. Today, she and Bob Bryan advanced to the Mixed Doubles final with a walkover past Meghann Shaughnessy/Justin Gimelstob (hmmm... I'm smellin' that conspiracy again). Tomorrow, she'll close out her career with a shot at a final grand slam title (it'd be her 59th) if she and Bryan can defeat Kveta Peschke & Martin Damm. The appropriate stage is set, and the match will actually take place AFTER the Henin-Hardenne/Sharapova singles final on Ashe. Another like her will never venture this way (and for this long) again, so it's time to enjoy her one last time. Hopefully, Peschke/Damm won't see fit to play the Benjamin Becker role and spoil the party.

... not sure what it means, but do you realize that in Amelie Mauresmo's final five sets of play in Flushing Meadows against Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova -- which surrounded the QF win over Dinara Safina -- she produced two brilliantly played sets of tennis but three (THREE!) sets lost at love. Weird. In the 3rd set against Sharapova, her accuracy just disappeared. There was some wind going through the court, but it really wasn't strong enough to account for her winning just seven of the final thirty-one points and committing fourteen unforced errors. It wasn't a return of the "old Amelie," but it wasn't the "new" one, either.




...Henin-Hardenne in her fourth slam final of '06. Sharapova in her first since winning Wimbledon in '04. The possibility of the match-up seemed reasonable at the start of the tournament, and the final pairing that resulted was hardly one that anyone could argue with. But on this grand stage, only one woman could be the star.

As it turned out, Sharapova was dressed perfectly for the occasion... just as she'd been when she'd made her '06 Open debut under the lights on Day 3.

Women's Final - "Exquisite in the City"

What will the 2006 U.S. Open be most remembered for? Andre Agassi's farewell, Martina Navratilova's one final audacious spit in the eye of time, Roger Federer's continuation of his dominance over a resurgent Andy Roddick... or Maria Sharapova's exquisite night on the town?

If her career holds true to form, bet on the Supernova. For she continues to stay one step ahead of the expectation game.



The reason Sharapova has so far managed to continue to defy the high expectations that her Wimbledon title and marketing plan have generated is because she always manages to jump on top of them early. From the moment she shed her wrap to reveal the little black dress on Day 3, one could sense that something special could be in the making in New York... then she spent two weeks doing nothing to dissuade the possibility, culminating in her caving in the roof on Justine Henin-Hardenne in a 6-4/6-4 win in the final to claim her first U.S. Open title.

Sharapova's final match at Flushing Meadows highlighted her old power strokes and big-point prowess, but also provided tantalizing hints of what could be to come. The Open put the advancement of Sharapova's game on full display. Better movement. Good preparation and a semblance of a gameplan. A willingness to move toward the net and force the action (something that should come in handy at SW19), even if it meant beating a five-time slam champ at her own game. Again, the scenarios abound after something like this.

Swinging defiantly. Grunting with abandon. Clenching a fist in triumph. And, just as importantly, doing it with exquisite style. A supernovic star in full luminosity.

In many ways, Sharapova is a symbol of all that makes New York -- which she says is her favorite city -- "New York." She has the style and grace to inspire notions of romance and grandeur, but enough heart and in-your-face confidence in herself and her abilities to never waver from her intended course. Some flash for the paparazzi, but enough substance to satisfy the rest of us.

Talk about a marriage made in sports heaven.

The Supernova has fashioned quite a story over the past two years, but could this maiden U.S. Open title signal the beginning of something even bigger? The "Sharapova Scenario" envisioned a moment like this but, true to form, the 19-year old may have made it happen about a year ahead of schedule.

Was this Open simply a titillating prelude, or has Sharapova's brief 12-18 month run of brilliance already begun? Needless to say, that will be the question du jour in these parts come Melbourne in January.

Her thirteenth career title will surely go down in tennis history as anything but unlucky, but is Sharapova in danger of attaining perfection?

Uh... naaah.

Forget for a moment about all the forehand and service winners that magically rocketed from her racket on Saturday, and remember that after the match Sharapova said that she had wanted to "do the opposite" and reverse her previous four-match losing streaking against Henin-Hardenne by completing a "360-degree flip" of all her previous actions in those matches. Of course, she meant to say "180-degrees," since a 360-flip would have brought her right back to where she started and this Backspin would have been lauding JHH's sixth grand slam title rather than Sharapova's second. Then, after her directional faux pas, Sharapova proceeded to knock the lid off the champion's cup when she held it up in girlish celebration.

(Hmmm, after the thing with the cell phone in '04, it looks like Maria needs to schedule some additional practice time to help her become more adept at working with props, doesn't it?)

Oh, well. Hey, the girl's not perfect. But she has time to work on that.


***

... sure, Roger Federer's four-set win over Andy Roddick in the men's final went off without a hitch (especially in the first and last sets, where he put on two more of those grand slam final clinics that are almost scary, what with the precise accuracy of his surgical dissection of a world-class opponent), but did Roddick's two-week Connors-inspired Open journey provide enough evidence to think that the men's game could become something other than a Federer/Nadal two-man play? Well, yeah. Maybe. If this U.S. Open Series was Roddick just scratching the surface of what he's capable of, then 2007 could very well see a THREE-headed monster terrorizing the ATP tour. Of course, that possibility does nothing to change the fact that Federer and Nadal have combined to win the last seven grand slam titles (could the Navratilova/Evert 15-slam hegemony from 1981-85 be in danger of being challenged?) and that Federer's ninth slam title means he's just became the first man to concurrently win three straight Wimbledon and three straight U.S. Open championships.

Yeah, Roddick has his work more than cut out for him.



...fittingly, Martina Navratilova's career apparently went off into the proverbial sunset (actually, the sun went down quite a few hours earlier in the day) with -- what else? -- another doubles title to add to her ridiculously long resume. A month shy of her 50th birthday, Navratilova and Bob Bryan handled Kveta Peschke/Martin Damm (both from Martina's native Czech Republic, to make things all the more apt) 6-2/6-3 in the Mixed Doubles Final that occurred after the Women's Singles festivities had wrapped up on Saturday.

But is her monstrously remarkable career REALLY over? This was her 59th career slam title, just three shy of Margaret Court's record. Hmmm... sounds like something to shoot for (not to mention the temptation of finally besting Billie Jean King with one more Wimbledon crown), doesn't it?

Said Martina, after the late night finish of the Mixed Final, "This is the last match. This is definite. Not allegedly. This is a closed chapter. It's past midnight. It's past my bed time."

Always leave 'em wanting more, I guess... even thirty-three years after it all began.

... in the other Doubles finals, unseeded Nathalie Dechy & Vera Zvonareva defeated #8-seeds Dinara Safina & Katarina Srebotnik. It was Dechy's first slam title, and Zvonareva's third ('04 US & '06 Wimbledon Mixed).

In Men's Doubles, #6 Martin Damm/Leander Paes upset #2 Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi to claim Damm's first career slam trophy and Paes' ninth.

...Hordette Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (remember the name, as if you could ever forget it -- it's spelling it correctly that's the tough part) won her second Girls slam title of the year, adding the U.S. Open crown to her Australian Open title (she was also RU in Roland Garros) when she rallied to defeat Tamira Paszek 3-6/6-4/7-5 in the Girls Singles final.

In Doubles, Pavlyuchenkova was denied completing a Girls Doubles Grand Slam for '06 when she and Sharon Fichman were defeated in the final by the Romanian team of Mihaela Buzarnescu & Raluca Olaru. The Russian had won the Oz and Roland Garros titles with Fichman, and Wimbledon with Alisa Kleybanova.


**2006 JUNIOR SLAM CHAMPIONS**
[Girls]
Australian: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS)
Roland Garros: Agnieszka Radwanska (POL)
Wimbledon: Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
U.S. Open: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS)

=TOP LATE-ROUND MATCH=
SF - Henin-Hardenne d. Jankovic
...4-6/6-4/6-0.
Jelena wasn't Maria. JHH looked ready to be sent home, with Jankovic up 6-4/4-2 and serving at 40/30. But a tiff with the chair umpire broke the Serbian's concentration. In the blink of an eye, her serve was broken, too. Jankovic never won another game. Even the easy going Jankovic (did her attempt to hide her smile when the crowd applauded the replay of her stretching leg split in the backcourt signal that she realized that she SHOULDN'T be laughing on the court during a U.S. Open SF match, although doing as such without an attack of conscious might be precisely the attitude that had helped turn around her results the last few weeks?) will have to struggle for a few days to forget about what she DIDN'T do in New York and instead focus on the great things she DID. Kind of like Justine, really. While she'll ultimately feel proud of having become the first player since Martina Hingis in 1997 to reach all four slam singles finals, who wants to wager that she'd rather have made just two if it meant she'd cached a pair of slam titles rather than the reality of the 1-3 slam final record that'll go into her '06 career bio. But down the stretch, as she grasps at the #1 ranking (she'd have overtaken Amelie Mauresmo had she won on Saturday) and "Player of the Year" honors, her current stretch of having made six straight singles finals (and 9-of-12 overall this season) will salve at least a few of her wounds... or maybe spur her on to attempt to reverse that 1-3 record in '07.

=BEST ENDING=
Martina Navratilova going out in grand slam style. Well, that is, if she STAYS retired this time... considering she DID say that she thought she could remain competitive on the court for another five years if she desired to make the effort.



...Henin would go on to claim the year-end #1 ranking at the season-ending championships, defeating both Sharapova (SF) and Mauresmo (Final) to take the title. It set the tone for her career season in '07, in which she went 63-4, won two slams (Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, giving her seven) and again finished #1. She retired in '08 while still the top-ranked player in the world (the first player to ever do so), only to come out of self-imposed exile to return to action in January of this year. She reached the Australian Open final in her first slam back. After injuring her elbow at Wimbledon, she's set to not play again until January '11.

Sharapova finished '06 at #2, only to be destroyed by Serena Williams in the Australian Open final the following January. A year later, she won her third slam singles crown in Melbourne with a win in the final over Ana Ivanovic. With Henin and Clijsters in retirement, she seemed poised to become the leading player on tour (or at least become Serena Williams' top rival). But a shoulder injury later that season (and eventual surgery) caused her to miss the end of the '08 campaign, as well as a large chunk of '09, and played havoc with her serve once she returned. While she's shown brief flashes of her former "Supernova" self, she's still trying to fully return to the form that made her the belle of the U.S. Open ball just four years ago.

From Sharapova and Henin, to Agassi and Navratilova, with Jankovic sprinkled in for some flavor, plotlines came busting out of New York in all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes and degrees of fun at the Open in '06. It was a satisfying dish of drama served fresh... for drama's sake. Who could ask a slam for more?

All for now.



PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES:
1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1987 Wimbledon (Navratilova/Cash), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Roland Garros (Seles/Gomez), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna), 2003 & '05 U.S. Open (Henin/Clijsters), 2001-09 Australian Open (Dokic Down Under)

3 Comments:

Blogger Hoergren said...

Well here is one of my weak points. When it's sport I can't use the past results for anything, and I really don't understand all the fuzz about being seeded as #1 in US Open without having a slam title?????? What are they talking about - it must be the here and now strenght of the players and right now there is only a couple of inform players and one of them is Miss Sunshine or Sweet Caroline as they say in New Haven. If you didn't see the semifinal in NH between Caro and Elena then you missed one of the most dramatic games for a long time - like 2 warriors fighting to the last blow. She was down in the sack - Caro was - in first set 1-6, get back in second 6-3 and are down most of 3rd set level to 5-5 6-5 and has 3 matchpoint in Elenas serve - she levels 6-6 - tiebreak 7-5. If people stil don't know the saying "doing a Wozniacki" that's what she did - again. Only 8 games to win Caro!

Sat Aug 28, 04:15:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

It also didn't hurt that her opponent was busy "doing an Elena" :)

Sat Aug 28, 11:29:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, I had a bit of a "Punch-Drunk/Punch-Sober" flashback with Dementieva in that match.

Great battle, though.

Sat Aug 28, 06:50:00 PM EDT  

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